As a Psychologist Helping Ukrainians, I Witness the Terrible Trauma of War | Anna Shilonosova
AAll four of my grandparents survived World War II, and all four were reluctant to talk about it, having either survived the siege of Leningrad or returned from the front wounded. On the rare occasions when they did, their memories left them devastated.
The PTSD they experienced throughout their lives was most likely one of the reasons I became a psychologist. I wanted to do something to end the vicious circle of trauma, abuse, self-neglect and fear. But during my training, I could never have predicted how I would apply my skills a decade later.
On February 25, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I volunteered to join several hotlines where psychologists worked to support those affected by the war. I couldn’t stop the war, but at least I could try to reduce the damage. My colleagues come from many different countries – some of the Ukrainian psychologists continued to work between the bombings, while others had evacuated to a safer location. Many of us, myself included, live safely abroad – a privilege too often taken for granted.
During the first weeks of the war, most of the Ukrainians who texted or called us had either just been evacuated or were still in areas of heavy shelling. Those who managed to escape suffered from survivor’s guilt, as well as the shock of war in general. Those who stayed felt shock in a different way, trying to navigate their daily anxiety spikes.
My first client was someone under siege in Ukraine. Their whole family had been hiding in a bomb shelter for days and they were having panic attacks, in part because of the sudden responsibility of having to care for elderly parents and beloved pets. They had to make the kind of decisions that no one should have to face.
As the war developed, everyone’s stress tolerance became thinner and thinner. Those who have fled Ukraine have reported apathy and a loss of will to live. Old traumas resurfaced, tightening their grip and making it harder to breathe. Those still under siege weakened mentally and physically, and they found it harder to cope with sleep deprivation and constant levels of tension and alertness. In such situations, the main way we can offer support is to validate the person’s feelings; help them find things they can control; and finding self-regulation techniques that work, such as body relaxation or breathing techniques.
It’s become the disturbing norm to receive text messages from people who’ve managed to log on while on hiatus in between hiding away from the bombs. However, none of us could get used to having to guess whether a delayed response meant the person had no network connection or was no longer alive. Messages such as “I feel drained”, “I need an urgent call” and “I need to talk to someone, I feel like this has weighed on me” started to appear more often in the support chats of our internal specialists.
In response to this, psychologists who specialize in assisting with supervision began to hold webinars and video conferences in order to help each other overcome the tension generated by the sessions. A group of dance movement therapists recently launched a series of virtual get-togethers where they show how dance and movement can be used to cope with stress. I find these initiatives very important: if we run out now, we won’t be able to help.
Messages like this move us forward: “Thank you for helping me find the strength to let my husband go to war”; “Thank you for this conversation, I needed to be heard. I found the courage to try to evacuate, and I am now safe.
My grandmother – the only living grandparent – struggles to relive her wartime memories without tears. But she stresses the importance of truth, especially in the times we live in, and of preserving those memories. Lately my family and I have been spending hours on video calls with her as she shared them with us.
To honor the work of my colleagues, I recently launched a documentary project, taking their portraits via video calls. It seems important to make a recording of this almost invisible part of the war. When I release the project later this year, I hope the war will be over. But a huge volume of trauma repair work remains to be done.